Holy Cow

Yesterday morning, these lovelies were standing outside my front door. I have grown accustomed to cows on the roads, sidewalks and munching the shrubbery/trash at the city park. Yet somehow it’s still a bit startling to see these giant black beasts returning your blurry-eyed stare in the predawn.

Hindus do not worship cows, they are considered sacred because they are a very useful animal. No Hindu text condemns eating beef, in fact, early Hindus were beef eaters. Their milk is consumed by young and old in liquid form of tea, yogurt and cheese. Cow dung is also a natural disinfectant, and is mixed with water by native villagers to wash the floor and walls of their house daily. It is speculated that they also serve as a reminder that all animals should be treated as sacred, as they are created and protected by God.


Cacaphony of honks

In Pondicherry, and probably in the whole of India, one of the first things you experience is the noise and chaos of the cars, motorbikes, buses, auto-rickshaws, trucks bicycles and pedestrians that jostle for space. I am told that 20 years ago, Pondicherry only had bicycles on the streets. Cars and motorbikes have been introduced and adopted so quickly that India’s infrastructure wasn’t able to keep pace with it. There are no traffic lights and only a few stop signs. Cars need to honk to tell each other that they are coming around the corner, that they are going to cross the street, to tell another vehicle to get their rear out of the way. Vehicles  honk incessantly, all the time, day and night.

It is like a cacophony of birds, that rival only the multitude of crows that congress in the trees and call all day.

There is definitely a food chain too, where the bigger vehicles usurp the road from the smaller ones with a honk and a swerve. The ‘no honking’ signs put up by the police of transportation don’t do much to curb their noise making. Why don’t the cops put up some stop signs instead? Hah.

In December the UO is sending 15 students to the ashram for three weeks for an Alternative Winter Break experience. That is one of the main reasons I am here, to help organize curriculum and logistics, and I couldn’t be happier to be working on this project. Thinking about transportation for about 20 people has left me with mixed feelings. When you need to reserve a 20 passenger bus, it’s great. But a large influx of motorized vehicles has serious ramifications for changing the physical and environmental landscape of our cities.

I don’t drive; my bicycle is my car. I like it that way. It is a priority for me to live in a city where I can walk and bike or take a subway. Cars are expensive and bad for the environment, but I’m glad I don’t have to regularly dole out money to oil and insurance companies to get by. Oh, and you get exercise! And you don’t have to go to the gym!

The blog It Dawned on Me has a great post on what it was like to go a year without a car. The author concludes that the positives far outweigh the negatives.

An Organic Paradise

July 22, 2011

Today was an epic day.  This morning a taxi ride took us to the jungle of the ashram’s organic farm, where they produce all the fruits and vegetables to feed 1,500 people a day. They even grow all of the rice for the ashram. The only exception is the wheat for baking bread, as wheat only grows in North India.

Bug spray is a must!

Dan, our guide Deberatu in the center, and the organic farm director, Bhavaram on the right

One of our guides is a tall, lanky gentleman named Debabrata, which his mother gave him because it means “divine mission.” He has lived at the ashram for 35 years. He used to be a follower of Vivekenanda, but when he was 21 he discovered the Mother. It’s a great story, I’ll post about it later.

The fragrant champa flower, which has over 200 varieties. The other day I bought some locally made champa soap and it smells up the whole bathroom. 

The farm is not like our mono-cultured crops, all the plants in perfect rows. The farm mirrors how plants grow in nature, all the plants mixed up. The farm workers know where all the plants are, they are clearly identifiable and cannot get misplaced. Some crops are grown alongside other plants that promote pollination. This model is much healthier for the plants, and less work for the humans. They use the in situ composting technique, which means that vegetable debris is thrown directly into the garden beds, instead of being left to decompose in a pile first. Soil is layered with vegetable matter, so it can fertilize directly in the beds.

 In situ composting: Potato plants with hibiscus flowers layered on beds

The farm also has a medicinal herb garden, for teaching about the healing  power of plants.

This herb’s leaves are used  to heal any mouth sores and also doubles as a mouth freshener! 

Cinnamon! Smells like Christmas…

Basil, which looks different than Oregon basil but tastes similar

Our tour only took us through a tiny bit of the 42 acres, yet we saw dozens of different crops. Keri and I took a million photos!

Henna! The root of the henna plant is used to cure jaundice, the leaves are used to treat kidney stones when combined with wild radish. The fruit is dried and ground up to make red hair dye. What a helpful plant…

This leaf is ground up to make black hair dye. I didn’t catch the name of it. 

The hibiscus flower is made into a syrup, which has a cooling effect. The flower is also combined with coconut oil and used as a hair conditioner treatment. 

Guavas are like apples here, I eat them everyday. It’s wonderful. 

The Callotropis flower. The milk is poisonous, but it is used to cure migraines. One must use a needle to prick the temple and release pressure, and then rub the milk on the temples. The plant is also rich in potassium, and so is used in the beds as compost to balance out the nitrogen in the soil. 

The pineapple plant. Most people think they grow on trees, when in fact they are actually a tiny shrub. 

Palm fruit, which has a high sugar content. The fruit is mixed with cow urine and used as a fertilizer.

At the end of our tour we were given a feast of raw coconut, mango, papaya.  The coconut water is delicious, which we drank through all natural straws made from papaya leaves. After we finished the liquid they machete’ed the coconuts open and we ate the soft meat with spoons. Fully grown coconuts soak up all their water inside and the meat gets thicker and tougher. We had juice all over everywhere. Delicieuse! Debabrata said they don’t get many visitors, so they love to show people around. Such nice people.

Books, books, and more books

Since I just graduated from the UO last month, I now have a lot of time to read up on India. I was an English major, so I love classical and modern literature but that hasn’t stopped me from delving into the socio-political history of India as well. Some of my recent favorites have been:

  • The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, by Peter Heehs: A very thorough biography of the founder of the Sri Aurobindo Society and his exciting life as a political independence leader, teacher, and yogi.
  • The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. Winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, this is a hilarious tale of an Indian villager who through cunning and survival skills becomes a successful entrepreneur set in the rush of modern day Delhi.
  • The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, translated by Sir Richard Burton: surviving over a thousand years, this text describes the proper societal practices of love and marriage in India. A fascinating and insightful read.
  • Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese: set in Addis Ababa, twin brothers are as entwined in love as they are in their passion for practicing medicine. Vivid characters against the backdrop of Indian and American hospital life and practices.


  • A Passage to India, by E. M. Forster: a 1928 satirical novel about the societal relationship between Indians and Britishers. An entertaining read that holds deeper societal critiques.
  • Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri: the author of The Namesake presents a compelling collection of short stories set in both India and the United States. If you like short stories, read these.
  • India’s Freedom, published by Urwin Books: a collection of speeches and letters of Prime Minister Jawharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister after India became a free nation in 1947. Nehru suffered through periods of imprisonment for his vision of a socialist, anti-imperialist government that would serve the people first and foremost.
A bespectacled Mohandas Gandhi, with Jawaharlal Nehru, at the All-India Congress committee meeting in Bombay, India, on July 6, 1946. Nehru took office as president of the Congress during the session. (AP Photo/Max Desfor)
First Lady Jackie Kennedy with an older Nehru, now as Prime Minister. Delhi, 1962. (Photo by Kulwant Roy) 
Next on my list is A Fine Balance, as well as Wanderlust and Lipstick: a Woman’s Guide to Traveling in India. Anyone have other good book recommendations?